Friday, October 15, 2010

Keep the Music in the Classroom

Music is an intricate part of life. It can excite or sooth. It can rev us up and make us jump around. I earned some serious street cred at school when I told a student that I graded their tests while listening to Megadeth. At a friend's get-together I discovered Duke Ellington. I had had a great appreciation for the genre and enjoyed it as theme music in movies. I had even played a few big band tunes as first chair trombone in my high school jazz band. But it made such awesome background music for the party I rushed home and spent way too much money on iTunes that night. (My twenty-five-year-old self just threw up. BACKGROUND music at a PARTY????)

Music was an elemental part of my education. I was in the marching band, symphonic band, chorus, orchestra, jazz band and brass sextet. I sang in the church choir and I sang a few solos when the minister was really desperate. (How could I say no? It was my dad.) However, it wasn't until recently that I realized there is a whole other kind of music in education and very few people truly understand it. It's the music of the teacher. It really hit me today that in my classroom, I might be teaching grammar, but I'm really a musician. All teachers are.

Some teachers are classically trained. They hit all the notes the same way every time. They have sheet music in front of them and they practice every note until every note is committed to muscle memory. They know the role they play in the orchestra and they are as consistent as a metronome. They play one principal instrument, and they make it sing.

I've had a couple of old bluesmen teach me in my day. They are the teachers that have been around the block so many times they lost count. At first glance, they look like they've had life beaten out of them. But when they get on stage, something clicks and they can still blow with the best of them. You can hear all of their triumphs and tragedies and you can't help but nod your head to the rhythm. Somehow they got to your soul.

Elementary school teachers strap on the guitar. They teach you those wonderful little campfire ditties like She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain and On Top of P'sketti. We don't really sing those songs anymore, but we love watching our kids learn them just like we did. The environmental studies teacher is the gospel choir. Unfortunately most of the time they're singing to the already-converted, but that doesn't mean they won't stop trying to get everyone else into their tent.

Every musician had that first band where they pounded out Louie Louie in the garage because that was the only song they knew how to play. When they think back to those days they can't believe how god-awful they actually were, but at the time, they were the second coming of the Beatles or the Stones. Every teacher has had their first classroom. I thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. My students probably thought I was a clueless doofus. But I kept pounding away until it started to actually sound recognizable. Hopefully I've added a few more songs to my repertoire.

Some very promising musicians give up way too early because they can't feed their families and have to work in their father's hardware store. What music could they have brought to the world if they had been encouraged to keep at it just a little bit longer?

Remember that lady in church? The one that just had to be front and center in the choir? The one that couldn't carry a tune but sang at the top of her very powerful lungs? The one who mostly sounded like a wolf howling at the moon? The one you smiled at and thought "She tries like hell, God love her." The one the minister just doesn't have the heart to ask to leave the choir because her heart's in the right place and she isn't hurting anyone? I had a couple of them in front of me back in the day. To my shame, I was probably the kid snickering in the back pew. No respect for the effort or the passion.

Me? I like to think I play good, hard classic rock. Crank it up! My music might be digitized these days, but it's still old-fashioned bass, drums and electric guitar. Kids today have their Lady Gaga and Glee covers and hip-hop samples. But everyone knows the real music came out of the 70s and 80s baby. Elvis is a little old-fashioned but AC/DC is forever.

Today, though, it was pure jazz. A student asked a question and I just started riffing. Those are my favorite lessons. I don't know exactly where I'm going and sometimes the crowd is ready for the drum solo to end about a minute before it actually does. However, when it flows, when the students are jamming with me, the next thing I know, my set is over. I don't know if I'll ever catch that lightning in the bottle ever again, but it was magic while it lasted. That's why musicians play and that's why teachers teach. That one moment of magic makes up for all the hours of heartbreak and disappointment, all the times you felt like you were banging your head against a wall.

Unfortunately, opportunities like this are getting fewer and fewer. Have you ever heard of the Suzuki method for violin? All the teachers are trained to teach exactly the same way. If every student plays on identical instruments and learns to play identical songs at identical times and performs identical pieces at regularly scheduled recitals, then everybody is successful, right? If you watch the kids, you will probably walk away thinking "Wow! So many kids can play the violin well." But you will also probably have a few nagging questions in the back of your head. "Where was the passion?" "Where were the smiles?" "If everyone is playing the violin, who's going to play the other instruments in the orchestra?"

Remember when you went to a rock show and you got a bunch of musicians playing their hearts out for you for three hours? They didn't have amazing light shows or pyrotechnics or JumboTrons. They didn't have corporate sponsors or promoters telling them when or where they could or couldn't play. They played because they loved to play.

Let teachers jam, man.